Category Archives: History of science

Someone is Wrong on the Internet.

Many of the readers of this blog will probably recognise the title of this post, as the punch line to one of the best ever xkcd cartoons. Regular readers will also know that the Renaissance Mathematicus cannot resist stamping on people who post inanely inaccurate or downright wrong history of science claims, comments etc. on the Internet. This last pre-Christmas post brings two examples of such foolishness that crossed our path in recent times.

The first concerns a problem that turns up time and again, not only on the Internet but also in many books. It is the inability of lots of people to comprehend that there cannot be a year nil, year zero or whatever they choose to call it. (Have patience dear reader the reason will be explained soon). Even worse are the reasons that such people, in their ignorance, dream up to explain the absence of the, in their opinion, missing numberless year. I stumbled across a particularly juicy example on the BBC’s History Extra website last Thursday, in a post entitled, 10 of the most surprising numbers in history. Actually the whole post really deserves a good kicking but for now I will content myself with the authors surprising number, AD 0…  the date that never was. The entry is very short so I’ve included the whole of it below:

The AD years of the Christian calendar are counted from the year of Jesus Christ’s birth, and, as the number zero was then unknown to the west, Dionysius began his new Christian era as AD 1, not AD 0. [my emphasis]

While it is now the consensus that Jesus was probably born between 7 and 3 BC, Dionysius’s new calendar is now the most widely used in the world, while AD 0 is one of the most interesting numbers never to have seen the light of day.

The first time I read this sparking pearl of historical wisdom I experienced one of those extremely painful ‘head-desk’ moments; recovering from my shock and managing at least a semblance of a laugh at this stunning piece of inanity I decided to give it the Histsci Hulk treatment.

Before I explain why there cannot be a year zero, let us look briefly at why Dionysius Exiguus, or Dennis the Short, started his count of the years with AD 1. Dennis, he of little stature, was not trying to create the calendar we use today in everyday lives but was making his contribution to the history of computos, the art of calculating the date of Easter. Due to the fact that the date of Easter is based on the Jewish Pesach (that’s Passover) feast, which in turn is based on a lunar calendar and also the fact that the lunar month and the solar year are incommensurable (you cannot measure the one with the other), these calculations are anything but easy. In fact they caused the Catholic Church much heartbreak and despair over the centuries from its beginnings right down to the Gregorian calendar reform in 1582. In the early centuries of Christianity the various solution usually involved producing a table of the dates of the occurrence of Easter over a predetermined cycle of years that then theoretically repeats from the beginning without too much inaccuracy. Dennis the vertically challenged produced just such a table.

In the time of our little Dennis there wasn’t a calendar with a continuous count of years. It was common practice to number the years according to the reign of the current monarch, emperor, despot or whatever. So for example the year that we know as 47 BCE would have been the third year of the reign of Gaius Julius Caesar. For formal purposes this dating system actually survived for a very long time. I recently came across a reference to a court case at the English Kings Bench Court in the eighteenth century as taking place on 12 July ‘4Geo.III’, that is the fourth year of the reign of George III. In Dennis the Small’s time the old Easter table, he hoped to replace, was dated according to the years of the reign of the Emperor Diocletian (245-311, reigned 284-305). Diocletian had distinguished himself by being particularly nasty to the Christians so our dwarf like hero decided to base his cycle on the 525 532 years “since the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ”; quite how he arrived at 525 532 years is not really known. AD short (being short, Dennis liked short things) for Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (“In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”). It was only later, starting with the Venerable Bede’s History of the Church (Historia Ecclesiastica) that Dennis’ innovation began to be used for general dating or calendrical purposes. The idea of BC years or dates only came into use in Early Modern period.

We now turn to the apparently thorny problem as to why there cannot be a year zero in a calendrical dating system. People’s wish or desire to find the missing year zero is based on a confusion in their minds between cardinal and ordinal numbers. (In what follows the terms cardinal and ordinal are used in their common linguistic sense and not the more formal sense of mathematical set theory). Cardinal numbers, one, two, three … and so on are used to count the number of objects in a collection. If, for example, your collection is the cookie jar there can be zero or nil cookies if the jar is, sadly, empty. Ordinal numbers list the positions of objects in an ordered collection, first, second, third … and so on. It requires only a modicum of thought to realise that there cannot be a zeroeth object, if it doesn’t exist it doesn’t have a position in the collection.

This distinction between cardinal and ordinal numbers becomes confused when we talk about historical years. We refer to the year five hundred CE when in fact we should be saying the five hundredth year CE, as it is an ordinal and not a cardinal. Remember our little friend Dennis’ AD, Anno Domini Nostri Iesu Christi (“In the Year of Our Lord Jesus Christ”)! We are enumerating the members of an ordered set not counting the number of objects in a collection. Because this is the case there cannot be a zeroeth year. End of discussion!

That this error, and particularly the harebrained explanation for the supposedly missing year zero, should occur on any history website is bad enough but that it occurs on a BBC website, an organisation that used to be world renowned for its informational reliability is unforgivable. I say used to be because I don’t think it’s true any longer. I would be interested in who is responsible for the history content of the BBC’s web presence as it varies between sloppy as here and totally crap as witnessed here and discussed here and here.

My second example is just as bad in terms of its source coming as it does from the Windows to the Universe website Brought to you by the National Earth Science Teachers Association. You would think that such an educational body would take the trouble to make sure that the historical information that they provide and disseminate is accurate and correct. If you thought that, you would be wrong, as is amply demonstrated by their post on Hellenistic astronomer, Ptolemy.

Ptolemy was a Greek astronomer who lived between 85-165 A.D. He put together his own ideas with those of Aristotle and Hipparchus and formed the geocentric theory. This theory states that the Earth was at the center of the universe and all other heavenly bodies circled it, a model which held for 1400 years until the time of Copernicus.

Ptolemy is also famous for his work in geography. He was the first person to use longitude and latitude lines to identify places on the face of the Earth.

We don’t actually know when Ptolemaeus (Ptolemy) lived, the usual way used to present his life is ‘fl. 150 CE’, where fl. means flourished. If you give dates for birth and death they should given as circa or c. To write them as above, 85–165 A.D. implies we know his exact dates of birth and death, we don’t! This is a trivial, but for historians, important point.

More important is the factual error in the second sentence: He … formed the geocentric theory. The geocentric theory had existed in Greek astronomy and cosmology for at least seven hundred years before Ptolemaeus wrote his Syntaxis Mathematiké (the Almagest). Ptolemaeus produced the most sophisticated mathematical model of the geocentric theory in antiquity but he didn’t form it. Those seven hundred years are not inconsequential (go back seven hundred years from now and you’ll be in 1314!) but represent seven hundred years of developments in cosmology and mathematical astronomy.

The last sentence contains an even worse error for teachers of the earth sciences. Ptolemaeus did indeed write a very important and highly influential geography book, his Geographike Hyphegesis. However he was not “the first person to use longitude and latitude lines”. We cannot be one hundred per cent who did in fact first use longitude and latitude lines but this innovation in cartography is usually attributed to a much earlier Alexandrian geographer, Eratosthenes, who lived about three hundred and fifty years before Ptolemaeus.

This is an example of truly terrible history of science brought to you by an organisation that says this about itself, “The National Earth Science Teachers Association is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) educational organization, founded in 1985, whose mission is to facilitate and advance excellence in Earth and Space Science education” [my emphasis]. I don’t know about you but my definition of excellence is somewhat other.

 

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of Cartography, History of science, Myths of Science

A very similar luminous lustre appears when one observes a burning candle from a great distance through a translucent piece of horn.

On 15 December 1612 (os) Simon Marius, Court Mathematicus in Ansbach, became the first astronomer to record a telescopic observation of the Andromeda Nebula. The importance of this observation was that whereas other known nebulae such as the Orion Nebula, had resolved into individual stars when viewed with a telescope, the Andromeda Nebula as recorded by Marius appears as “…a weak and faint lustre at the centre with a diameter of about one quarter of a degree. A very similar luminous lustre appears when one observes a burning candle from a great distance through a translucent piece of horn” (Simon Marius, Mudus Iovialis, 1614 my translation).

In the history of astronomy the Andromeda Nebula would go on to play a central role in the deep space observations of Charles Messier (M31) and William Herschel in the eighteenth century. In the early twentieth century its nature and status then became the bone of contention in the legendary dispute between Shapley and Curtis.

2014 being the four hundredth anniversary of the publication of Marius’ major astronomical work the Mundus Iovialis we have been celebrating his live and work in Middle Franconia. First high point of the various activities were the launching of the Marius Portal, an Internet website giving researchers free access to all primary and secondary works by and about Simon Marius with navigation in almost thirty different languages.

On 20 September a one-day conference was held with contributions covering the various aspects of Marius’ life and academic work (mathematics, astrology and astronomy) in Nürnberg. The proceedings of this conference are due to appear in book, form hopefully in 2015.

This coming Wednesday, 17 December 2014, will see the founding of the Simon Marius Gesellschaft (Simon Marius Society) in Nürnberg to further research and promote his life and work. Anybody who is interested is herewith cordially invited to apply for full or corresponding membership. There are no membership fees!

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of science, Local Heroes, Renaissance Science

Retelling a story – this time with all the facts

Before 1995 probably only a handful of people interested in the history of navigation had ever heard of the English clockmaker John Harrison and the role he played in the history of attempts to find a reliable method of determining longitude at sea. This situation changed radically when Dava Sobel published her book Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time[1] in that year. This volume caught the public imagination and very rapidly became one of the most successful popular history of science and technology books of all time. It was followed just three years later by a lavishly illustrated expanded edition. Just one year after that followed the equally lavish television documentary film based on the book. By the year 2000 at the latest John Harrison had become a household name and a British scientific hero on a level with Newton and Darwin.

P.L. Tassaert's half-tone print of Thomas King's original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

P.L. Tassaert’s half-tone print of Thomas King’s original 1767 portrait of John Harrison, located at the Science and Society Picture Library,

All of this would have been well and good if Sobel had actually adhered to the first three words of her subtitle, The True Story…, but unfortunately she sacrificed historical accuracy to the expediency of telling a good story, basically reducing a complex historical narrative to the fairy tale of a poor honest hero, John Harrison, overcoming adversity to finally triumph against the evil machination of his dishonest scheming opponent the Astronomer Royal, Nevil Maskelyne. Sobel’s lurid narrative proved, as already stated, commercially very successful but left its readers with a highly distorted view of what actually took place in the long eighteenth century in the endeavours to find a method of determining longitude and the role that the various people involved played in those endeavours. In particular Nevil Maskelyne was left in the popular public imagination looking rather like the devil’s evil cousin.

 

Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne Source Wikimedia

Rev. Dr Nevil Maskelyne
Source Wikimedia

About five years ago a major historical research project, under the auspices of the Arts & Humanities Research Council, was set up by Cambridge University and the National Maritime Museum in Greenwich on the history of the British Board of Longitude, the official body set up to oversee and direct the search for a method to determine longitude at sea in the eighteenth century. Led by Simon Schaffer for the University of Cambridge and Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt for the National Maritime Museum this project featured a cast of excellent doctoral and post doctoral researchers some of whose findings can be found on the excellent Longitude Project Blog. To date this research project has produced a remarkable list of achievements. Alongside a volume of papers on the much maligned Nevil Maskelyne, which has just appeared and which I am looking forward very much to reading,

4114.1.450.450.FFFFFF.0

the whole of the Board of Longitude archive has been digitized and made available online to researchers. Currently on at the Museum in Greenwich is a major exhibition Ships, Clocks and Stars: The Quest for Longitude, which you can still visit if you hurry, it closes on the 4th of January 2015. If you are uncertain whether or not it’s worth visiting, it has just been awarded the British Society for the History of Science Great Exhibitions Award for 2014! If like myself you are unable for some reason to make the journey to Greenwich do not despair you can bring the exhibition into your own living room by acquiring the accompanying book Finding Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem[2] by Richard Dunn and Rebekah Higgitt, a review of which is the actually subject of this post.

Finding Longitude001

My review is actually very simple this book is magnificent. If you have any interest in the histories of navigation, sea voyages, astronomy, clocks, John Harrison, Nevil Maskelyne, Tobias Mayer, and a whole ship’s cargo of other related and interrelated topics then buy this book! I guarantee you that you won’t regret it for one second. It combines thorough research, first class scholarship, excellent writing, unbelievably lavish illustrations, fascinating narratives and historical accuracy in one superb and, for what it is, surprisingly low priced large format volume. Unlike Sobel’s, from a historians standpoint, ill-starred volume, this work really does tell the true story of the solution of the longitude problem with all its complex twists and turns giving all the participants their dues. Although written for the general reader this book should also find a home on the bookshelves of any working historian of navigation, astronomy, horology, sea voyages or just the science and technology of the long eighteenth century.

This book will take you on a voyage through the choppy waters of eighteenth century science, politics and technology and deliver you up on the shores of the nineteenth century much more knowledgeable then you were when you boarded ship and entertain and delight you along the way. It will also make for a first class Christmas present.

[1] Dava Sobel, Longitude: The True Story of a Lone Genius Who Solved the Greatest Scientific Problem of His Time, Fourth Estate, London, 1995

[2] Richard Dunn & Rebekah Higgitt, Longitude: How Ships, clocks and stars helped solve the longitude problem, Collins and Royal Museums Greenwich, London 2014

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Filed under Book Reviews, History of Cartography, History of Navigation, History of science

The weather and the stars

My attention was recently drawn to the MacTutor history of maths website article on The History of Weather Forecasting. The article is largely concerned with the mathematics of weather forecasting from the nineteenth century onwards but has some short introductory paragraphs covering the prehistory of meteorology, which unfortunately displays a woeful ignorance of the subject. Under the heading Early Attempts we get served up the following:

It is not known when people first started to observe the skies, but at around 650 BC, the Babylonians produced the first short-range weather forecasts, based on their observations of the stars and clouds. The Chinese also recognised weather patterns, and by 300 BC astronomers had developed a calendar which divided the year into 24 festivals, each associated with a different weather phenomenon. Generally, weather was attributed to the vagaries of the gods, as the wide range of weather gods in various cultures, for example the Egyptian sun god Ra and Thor, the Norse god of thunder and lightning, proves. Many ancient civilisations developed rites such as rain dances and animal sacrifices in order to propitiate the weather gods.

The ancient Greeks were the first to develop a more scientific approach to explaining the weather. The work of the philosopher and scientist Aristotle (384-322 BC) is especially noteworthy, as it dominated people’s views on and their knowledge of the weather for the next 2000 years. In 340 BC, Aristotle wrote his book Meteorologica, where he tried to explain the formation of rain, clouds, wind and storms. In addition, he also described celestial phenomena such as comets and haloes. Many of his observations were — in retrospect — surprisingly accurate. For example, he believed that heat could cause water to evaporate. But he also jumped to quite a few wrong conclusions, such as that winds form “as the Earth exhales“, which were rectified from the Renaissance onwards.

Throughout the Middle Ages and beyond, the Church was the only official institution that was allowed to explain the causes of weather, and Aristotle’s Meteorologica was established as Christian dogma. Besides, weather observations were passed on in the form of rhymes, which are now known as weather lore. Many of these proverbs are based on very good observations and are accurate, as contemporary meteorologists have discovered.

This brief synopsis, which covers approximately one thousand years actually almost completely ignores the main form of weather forecasting practiced throughout the period covered astrometeorology. As any astute reader will have already deduce astrometeorology is a branch of astrology and is in fact astrological weather forecasting. This is one of the more rational forms of astrology; weather comes from the heavens, be it sunshine, fog, wind, or one of the many forms of precipitation (rain, snow, sleet, hail), so it would seem fairly logical to assume that the heaven cause or control the weather. This is exactly what people in antiquity did in many different cultures and actually what the article above is referring to in both of the first two quoted sentences although the author doesn’t seem to or doesn’t want to know it. It was not Aristotle’s views as expressed in the Meteorologica that “dominated people’s views on and knowledge of the weather for the next 2000 years” but astrometeorology. There is a slight irony here as a quote from Aristotle’s Meteorologica delivered one of main justifications for astrology in Western thought up to the Early Modern period. Astrometeorology is along with astro-medicine one of the branches of natural astrology and as such was even accepted throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance by people who rejected other forms of astrology, for example judicial or horoscope astrology.

This very widespread acceptance meant that it was astrometeorology that was the dominant form of weather forecasting in the Middle Ages accepted even by the Church at a time when judicial astrology was, at least official, heavily frowned upon. One might well say, so what? What does it matter what people believed before the emergence of scientific meteorology in the seventeenth century, when this superstitious twaddle got drop anyway? The answer is quit simple; astrometeorology played a significant role in the emergence of that scientific meteorology.

During the Renaissance astrology reached its highest level of popularity in the history of Western culture. Almost all mathematicians and astronomers (mostly one and the same) were also practicing astrologers and they were not just doing it for the money as is often falsely claimed by those who try to deny the significance of astrology in the Early Modern period; they really believed in it. However these were the people who also laid the foundations of the modern empirical approach to the sciences and they were often painfully aware of the lack of empirical justification for the science of astrology that they practiced. To counter this weakness they set about developing various projects to give astrology a solid empirical base, one of the principle projects involving astrometeorology. This project consisted of keeping accurate and continuous weather diaries. They thought that by recording the weather over long periods of time on a daily basis they could then distinguish the correlation, that they were sure existed, between the weather and the movement of the celestial bodies. The oldest known such weather diary was kept by Roger Bacon in the thirteenth century. Bacon was of course not only a fervent believer in astrology but also an early proponent of empirical methods in science. There are other scattered medieval weather diaries but the process first really kicked off at the end of the fifteenth century. The keeping of weather diaries was greatly furthered by the introduction of printed ephemerides, which provided the potential meteorologist with a convenient place to record his observations directly next to the astronomical/astrological information for the day.

A notable writer of weather diaries was Johannes Stöfler (1452-1531), who taught and influenced Philipp Melanchthon (a powerful advocate of Renaissance astrology), Sebastian Münster and others. Another was the Nürnberger mathematicus Johannes Werner (1462-1522), who first suggested the chronometer method of determining longitude. Probably most well-known as weather diary keeper was Tycho Brahe (1546-1601), without doubt the important observational astronomer in the pre-telescope era. Tycho is possibly also responsible for David Fabricius (1564-1617), discoverer, amongst other things, of the first variable star, Mira, keeping a weather diary. Fabricius help Johannes Kepler (1571-1630) to formulate his theory of elliptical planetary orbits in an extended correspondence; systematically criticising Kepler various formulations. Kepler a passionate astrologer also kept a weather diary. He famously established his reputation as an astrologer by correctly predicting an especially hard winter in his first prognostications as district mathematicus in Graz in 1594. Weather diaries were also kept by many other less well-known figures. It is significant that Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) the most strident Renaissance critic of astrology also kept a weather diary and used the results as one of his arguments for rejecting astrology.

Pico della Mirandola was of course right the systematic keeping of weather diaries did not, as hoped, provide an empirical basis for the science of astrology but did exactly the opposite showing that astrometeorology, at least, was a refuted theory. However the results were not all negative. The systematic empirical weather observations contained in the diaries laid the foundations for scientific meteorology in the seventeenth century. The data collected by those Renaissance astrologers is still used by modern meteorologists to help establish long-term weather patterns.

 

 

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Filed under History of Astrology, History of science, Renaissance Science

Having lots of letters after your name doesn’t protect you from spouting rubbish

The eloquently excellent Elegant Fowl (aka Pete Langman @elegantfowl) just drew my attention to a piece of high-grade seventeenth-century history of science rubbish on the website of my favourite newspaper The Guardian. In the books section a certain Ian Mortimer has an article entitled The 10 greatest changes of the past 1,000 years. I must to my shame admit that I’d never heard of Ian Mortimer and had no idea who he is. However I quick trip to Wikipedia informed that I have to do with Dr Ian James Forrester Mortimer (BA, PhD, DLitt, Exeter MA, UCL) and author of an impressive list of books and that the article on the Guardian website is a promotion exercise for his latest tome Centuries of Change. Apparent collecting lots of letter after your name and being a hyper prolific scribbler doesn’t prevent you from spouting rubbish when it comes writing about the history of science. Shall we take a peek at what the highly eminent Mr Mortimer has to say about the seventeenth-century that attracted the attention of the Elegant Fowl and have now provoked the ire of the Renaissance Mathematicus.

17th century: The scientific revolution

One thing that few people fully appreciate about the witchcraft craze that swept Europe in the late 16th and early 17th centuries is that it was not just a superstition. If someone you did not like died, and you were accused of their murder by witchcraft, it would have been of no use claiming that witchcraft does not exist, or that you did not believe in it. Witchcraft was recognised as existing in law – and to a greater or lesser extent, so were many superstitions. The 17th century saw many of these replaced by scientific theories. The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo. People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor. But the most important thing is that there was a widespread confidence in science. Only a handful of people could possibly have understood books such as Isaac Newton’s Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, when it was published in 1687. But by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

Regular readers of this blog will be aware that I’m a gradualist and don’t actually believe in the scientific revolution but for the purposes of this post we will just assume that there was a scientific revolution and that it did take place in the seventeenth century, although most of those who do believe in it think it started in the middle of the sixteenth-century.

I find it mildly bizarre to devote nearly half of this paragraph to a rather primitive description of the witchcraft craze and to suggest that the scientific revolution did away with belief in witchcraft, given that several prominent propagators of the new science wrote extensively defending the existence of witches. I recommend Joseph Glanvill’s Saducismus triumphatus (1681) and Philosophical Considerations Touching the Being of Witches and Witchcraft (1666). Apart from witchcraft I can’t think of any superstition that was replaced by a scientific theory in the seventeenth-century. However it is the next brief sentence that cries out for my attention.

The old idea that the sun revolved around the Earth was finally disproved by Galileo.

By a strange coincidence I spent yesterday evening listening to a lecture by one of Germany’s leading historians of astronomy, Dr Jürgen Hamel (who has written almost as many books as Ian Mortimer) on why it was perfectly reasonable to reject the heliocentric theory of Copernicus in the first hundred years or more after it was published. He of course also explained that Galileo did not succeed in either disproving geocentricity or proving heliocentricity. Now anybody who has regularly visited this blog will know that I have already written quite a lot on this topic and I don’t intend to repeat myself here but I recommend my on going series on the transition to heliocentricity (the next instalment is in the pipeline) in particular the post on the Sidereus Nuncius and the one on the Phases of Venus. Put very, very simply for those who have not been listening: GALILEO DID NOT DISPROVE THE OLD IDEA THAT THE SUN REVOLVED AROUND THE EARTH. I apologise for shouting but sometimes I just can’t help myself.

Quite frankly I find the next sentence totally mindboggling:

People facing life-threatening illnesses, who in 1600 had simply prayed to God for health, now chose to see a doctor.

Even more baffling, it appears that Ian Mortimer has written prize-winning essay defending this thesis, “The Triumph of the Doctors” was awarded the 2004 Alexander Prize by the Royal Historical Society. In this essay he demonstrated that ill and injured people close to death shifted their hopes of physical salvation from an exclusively religious source of healing power (God, or Christ) to a predominantly human one (physicians and surgeons) over the period 1615–70, and argued that this shift of outlook was among the most profound changes western society has ever experienced. (Wikipedia) I haven’t read this masterpiece but colour me extremely sceptical.

We close out with a generalisation that simply doesn’t hold water:

[…] by 1700 people had a confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world, even if they themselves did not, and that it was unnecessary to resort to superstitions to explain seemingly mysterious things.

They did? I really don’t think so. By 1700 hundred the number of people who had “confidence that the foremost scientists did understand the world” was with certainty so minimal that one would have a great deal of difficulty expressing it as a percentage.

Mortimer’s handful of sentences on the 17th century and the scientific revolution has to be amongst the worst paragraphs on the evolution of science in this period that I have ever read.

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Filed under History of Astronomy, History of medicine, History of science, Myths of Science

The Queen of Science – The woman who tamed Laplace.

In a footnote to my recent post on the mythologizing of Ibn al-Haytham I briefly noted the inadequacy of the terms Arabic science and Islamic science, pointing out that there were scholars included in these categories who were not Muslims and ones who were not Arabic. In the comments Renaissance Mathematicus friend, the blogger theofloinn, asked, Who were the non-muslim “muslim” scientists? And (aside from Persians) who were the non-Arab “arab” scientists? And then in a follow up comment wrote, I knew about Hunayn ibn Ishaq and the House of Wisdom, but I was not thinking of translation as “doing science.” From the standpoint of the historian of science this second comment is very interesting and reflects a common problem in the historiography of science. On the whole most people regard science as being that which scientists do and when describing its history they tend to concentrate on the big name scientists.

This attitude is a highly mistaken one that creates a falsified picture of scientific endeavour. Science is a collective enterprise in which the ‘scientists’ are only one part of a collective consisting of scientists, technicians, instrument designers and makers, and other supportive workers without whom the scientist could not carry out his or her work. This often includes such ignored people as the secretaries, or in earlier times amanuenses, who wrote up the scientific reports or life partners who, invisible in the background, often carried out much of the drudgery of scientific investigation. My favourite example being William Herschel’s sister and housekeeper, Caroline (a successful astronomer in her own right), who sieved the horse manure on which he bedded his self cast telescope mirrors to polish them.

Translators very definitely belong to the long list of so-called helpers without whom the scientific endeavour would grind to a halt. It was translators who made the Babylonian astronomy and astrology accessible to their Greek heirs thus making possible the work of Eudoxus, Hipparchus, Ptolemaeus and many others. It was translators who set the ball rolling for those Islamic, or if you prefer Arabic, scholars when they translated the treasures of Greek science into Arabic. It was again translators who kicked off the various scientific Renaissances in the twelfth and thirteenth-centuries and again in the fifteenth-century, thereby making the so-called European scientific revolution possible. All of these translators were also more or less scientists in their own right as without a working knowledge of the subject matter that they were translating they would not have been able to render the texts from one language into another. In fact there are many instances in the history of the transmission of scientific knowledge where an inadequate knowledge of the subject at hand led to an inaccurate or even false translation causing major problems for the scholars who tried to understand the texts in the new language. Translators have always been and continue to be an important part of the scientific endeavour.

The two most important works on celestial mechanics produced in Europe in the long eighteenth-century were Isaac Newton’s Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica and Pierre-Simon, marquis de Laplace’s Mécanique céleste. The former was originally published in Latin, with an English translation being published shortly after the author’s death, and the latter in French. This meant that these works were only accessible to those who mastered the respective language. It is a fascinating quirk of history that the former was rendered into French and that latter into English in each case by a women; Gabrielle-Émilie Le Tonnelier de Breteuil, Marquise du Châtelet translated Newton’s masterpiece into French and Mary Somerville translated Laplace’s pièce de résistance into English. I have blogged about Émilie de Châtelet before but who was Mary Somerville? (1)

 

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

Mary Somerville by Thomas Phillips

She was born Mary Fairfax, the daughter of William Fairfax, a naval officer, and Mary Charters at Jedburgh in the Scottish boarders on 26 December 1780. Her parents very definitely didn’t believe in education for women and she spent her childhood wandering through the Scottish countryside developing a lifelong love of nature. At the age of ten, still semi-illiterate, she was sent to Miss Primrose’s boarding school at Musselburgh in Midlothian for one year; the only formal schooling she would ever receive. As a young lady she received lessons in dancing, music, painting and cookery. At the age of fifteen she came across a mathematical puzzle in a ladies magazine (mathematical recreation columns were quite common in ladies magazines in the 18th and 19th-centuries!) whilst visiting friends. Fascinated by the symbols that she didn’t understand, she was informed that it was algebra, a word that meant nothing to her. Later her painting teacher revealed that she could learn geometry from Euclid’s Elements whilst discussing the topic of perspective. With the assistance of her brother’s tutor, young ladies could not buy maths-books, she acquired a copy of the Euclid as well as one of Bonnycastle’s Algebra and began to teach herself mathematics in the secrecy of her bedroom. When her parents discovered this they were mortified her father saying to her mother, “Peg, we must put a stop to this, or we shall have Mary in a strait jacket one of these days. There is X., who went raving mad about the longitude.” They forbid her studies, but she persisted rising before at dawn to study until breakfast time. Her mother eventually allowed her to take some lessons on the terrestrial and celestial globes with the village schoolmaster.

In 1804 she was married off to a distant cousin, Samuel Grieg, like her father a naval officer but in the Russian Navy. He, like her parents, disapproved of her mathematical studies and she seemed condemned to the life of wife and mother. She bore two sons in her first marriage, David who died in infancy and Woronzow, who would later write a biography of Ada Lovelace. One could say fortunately, for the young Mary, her husband died after only three years of marriage in 1807 leaving her well enough off that she could now devote herself to her studies, which she duly did. Under the tutorship of John Wallace, later professor of mathematics in Edinburgh, she started on a course of mathematical study, of mostly French books but covering a wide range of mathematical topic, even tacking Newton’s Principia, which she found very difficult. She was by now already twenty-eight years old. During the next years she became a fixture in the highest intellectual circles of Edinburgh.

In 1812 she married for a second time, another cousin, William Somerville and thus acquired the name under which she would become famous throughout Europe. Unlike her parents and Samuel Grieg, William vigorously encouraged and supported her scientific interests. In 1816 the family moved to London. Due to her Scottish connections Mary soon became a member of the London intellectual scene and was on friendly terms with such luminaries as Thomas Young, Charles Babbage, John Herschel and many, many others; all of whom treated Mary as an equal in their wide ranging scientific discussions. In 1817 the Somervilles went to Paris where Mary became acquainted with the cream of the French scientists, including Biot, Arago, Cuvier, Guy-Lussac, Laplace, Poisson and many more.

In 1824 William was appointed Physician to Chelsea Hospital where Mary began a series of scientific experiments on light and magnetism, which resulted in a first scientific paper published in the Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society in 1826. In 1836, a second piece of Mary’s original research was presented to the Académie des Sciences by Arago. The third and last of her own researches appeared in the Philosophical Transactions in 1845. However it was not as a researcher that Mary Somerville made her mark but as a translator and populariser.

In 1827 Henry Lord Brougham and Vaux requested Mary to translate Laplace’s Mécanique céleste into English for the Society for the Diffusion of Useful Knowledge. Initially hesitant she finally agreed but only on the condition that the project remained secret and it would only be published if judged fit for purpose, otherwise the manuscript should be burnt. She had met Laplace in 1817 and had maintained a scientific correspondence with him until his death in 1827. The translation took four years and was published as The Mechanism of the Heavens, with a dedication to Lord Brougham, in 1831. The manuscript had been refereed by John Herschel, Britain’s leading astronomer and a brilliant mathematician, who was thoroughly cognisant with the original, he found the translation much, much more than fit for the purpose. Laplace’s original text was written in a style that made it inaccessible for all but the best mathematicians, Mary Somerville did not just translate the text but made it accessible for all with a modicum of mathematics, simplifying and elucidating as she went. This wasn’t just a translation but a masterpiece. The text proved too vast for Brougham’s Library of Useful Knowledge but on the recommendation of Herschel, the publisher John Murray published the book at his own cost and risk promising the author two thirds of the profits. The book was a smash hit the first edition of 750 selling out almost instantly following glowing reviews by Herschel and others. In honour of the success the Royal Society commissioned a bust of Mrs Somerville to be placed in their Great Hall, she couldn’t of course become a member!

At the age of fifty-one Mary Somerville’s career as a science writer had started with a bang. Her Laplace translation was used as a textbook in English schools and universities for many years and went through many editions. Her elucidatory preface was extracted and published separately and also became a best seller. If she had never written another word she would still be hailed as a great translator and science writer but she didn’t stop here. Over the next forty years Mary Somerville wrote three major works of semi-popular science On the Connection of the Physical Sciences (1st ed. 1834), Physical Geography (1st ed. 1848), (she was now sixty-eight years old!) and at the age of seventy-nine, On Molecular and Microscopic Science (1st ed. 1859). The first two were major successes, which went through many editions each one extended, brought up to date, and improved. The third, which she later regretted having published, wasn’t as successful as her other books. Famously, in the history of science, William Whewell in his anonymous 1834 review of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences first used the term scientist, which he had coined a year earlier, in print but not, as is oft erroneously claimed, in reference to Mary Somerville.

Following the publication of On the Connection of the Physical Sciences Mary Somerville was awarded a state pension of £200 per annum, which was later raised to £300. Together with Caroline Herschel, Mary Somerville became the first female honorary member of the Royal Astronomical Society just one of many memberships and honorary memberships of learned societies throughout Europe and America. Somerville College Oxford, founded seven years after her death, was also named in her honour. She died on 28 November 1872, at the age of ninety-one, the obituary which appeared in the Morning Post on 2 December said, “Whatever difficulty we might experience in the middle of the nineteenth century in choosing a king of science, there could be no question whatever as to the queen of science.” The Times of the same date, “spoke of the high regard in which her services to science were held both by men of science and by the nation”.

As this is my contribution to Ada Lovelace day celebrating the role of women in the history of science, medicine, engineering, mathematics and technology I will close by mentioning the role that Mary Somerville played in the life of Ada. A friend of Ada’s mother, the older women became a scientific mentor and occasional mathematics tutor to the young Miss Byron. As her various attempts to make something of herself in science or mathematics all came to nought Ada decided to take a leaf out of her mentor’s book and to turn to scientific translating. At the suggestion of Charles Wheatstone she chose to translate Luigi Menabrea’s essay on Babbage’s Analytical Engine, at Babbage’s suggestion elucidating the original text as her mentor had elucidated Laplace and the rest is, as they say, history. I personally would wish that the founders of Ada Lovelace Day had chosen Mary Somerville instead, as their galleon figure, as she contributed much, much more to the history of science than her feted protégée.

(1) What follows is largely a very condensed version of Elizabeth  C. Patterson’s excellent Somerville biography Mary Somerville, The British Journal for the History of Science, Vol. 4, 1969, pp. 311-339

 

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Polluting Youtube once again!

Professor Christopher M Graney, Renaissance Mathematicus friend and guest blogger, has posted another of his holiday videos on Youtube, documenting parts of his visit to Nürnberg and Bamberg for the Astronomy in Franconia Conferences. In his new video “Nürnberg and Bamberg” you can see the Behaim Globe (Martin Behaim celebrates his 555th birthday today!), the Frauenkirche Clock (1509) doing its thing, and yours truly wittering on about Johannes Petreius and Copernicus’ De revolutionibus (4.11–6.56)

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